Despite all the advances in technology over the past 100 years, we’re working harder and longer than our grandparents did. Are we being conned? The system keeps us chained to the wheel, and we’ve got to break out of the system if we want to break free.
Sometimes I think back to the way my grandpa used to live.
It’s getting harder and harder to remember a time before facebook, email, mobile phones and computers.
But back then, if you wanted to write on someone’s wall, you actually had to drive over to their place, and even then, it wasn’t a very cool thing to do.
“Hey, why are you pinning that picture of a cat to my house?”
We take for granted things that ol pops could never have imagined. The rate of technological advancement in the 20th century was mind boggling. In a single life time we went from being unable to sustain powered flight, to popping blokes up on the moon like it was nothing.
I still don’t think our minds have fully caught up with our new technological reality. And it’s only getting faster and faster. In just a few years, pretty much every digital tool we’ve ever wanted has been gobbled up by our phones. My iphone is a personal assistant, photographer, navigator and jukebox, all rolled into one little robot.
And think of all the labour-saving technology. Electricity and things like washing machines revolutionised domestic chores. Production lines, robots and computers revolutionised industry.
Think of how many labour hours have been saved in the past 100 years, all thanks to technology.
And we used this boon – all that saved labour – to do the thing we really love – go to the beach, spend time with family, update our facebook statuses.
I mean, no we didn’t.
In fact, we’re actually working a lot harder and longer than our grandparents did. We liberated women from being tied to the kitchen and laundry, only to chain them to office desks.
There was a while there where I was working longer work weeks that my grandpa ever did.
So what’s going on here? We went from wind up phonographs to a 1,000 hours of music on our phones, but our leisure time actually went down?
What happened to all the time that our labour-saving technology bought us?
Who stole our leisure time?
Well, a lot of those productivity benefits have been funnelled upwards – up towards the 1%. Every productivity gain makes business more profitable. Some of that gain may be captured by workers through higher wages, but most will be captured by the owners of capital.
And that’s not as sinister as it might sound. Every business owner, large or small, is looking for a way to increase their profits – get the most return on their investment of time and energy and risk. It’s only natural.
Most are not actively looking for ways to increase the wages or the leisure time of their employees. Very few would see that as their role. And it probably isn’t, not in the current system.
If workers are to benefit, they need a certain degree of power. That may occur naturally for particular and rare skill sets, or it may come through collective organisation like unions.
And if the workers have some power they may be able to capture some of the productivity gains either as more leisure or higher wages.
But that’s the thing. Given that choice, workers have almost always gone for more money.
And that’s because we’re locked into a consumerist Mexican stand off. We’re all trying to keep up with the Jones’s, but the Jones’s have on a pair of $200 nikes and are going for it.
Even if we wanted to opt out of the rat race, we can’t really do it alone. We could grow our own veggies and sew our own shirts, but sooner or later, the cost of living would catch up with us.
The price of everything we buy as individuals keys off national prices. Milk costs about the same everywhere. More or less. And because everyone else is earning more and spending more, prices keep going up. Inflation keeps us chained to the wheel.
And when my grandparents bought a house, it was on a single wage with Grandma staying at home looking after the kids.
Now, try buying for your first house on a single income. Mum’s been forced into the workforce, and both parents are locked into longer and longer work weeks, just to try and get ahead.
Which is what everyone else is doing. So the bar for ‘getting ahead’ just gets higher and higher.
This is another one of those tragedies that comes from being part of a herd species. Actions that make sense at the individual level, create outcomes that are ridiculous at the collective level.
And despite all the advances in technology, most people are working harder and feel they have less. Madness.
But is there a way out? Well, history has shown we’re not that good at dealing with collective tragedies. There’s some efforts in continental Europe to create shorter work weeks for public servants and things like that.
They’re trying to engineer some sort of consumerist disarmament – by getting everyone to step it down a bit. But there’s always going to be the temptation for someone to cheat – to work that little bit longer and earn that little bit more money to get ahead of everyone else.
Which just forces everyone to keep up.
And at the same time, business owners aren’t going to be loving it. They want to get the most out of their staff. Business will be fighting every step of the way – just as they fought against the 40-hour work week.
So personally, I’m not holding my breath.
You can’t beat the system from within the system. You need to step right out of it. If you think you can keep toiling away as a wage-slave and one day break through into clean air, forget it.
You need to think right outside the box. Invest like the system is rigged against you.
Because it is.